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U.S. military issues a new challenge: rescue robots

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Rather than sending humans into disaster zones, Darpa wants to send humanoid robots. And they want you to design one.

The men who worked day and night to control the Fukushima disaster last year were regarded as heroes, willing to risk radiation to keep the impending disaster under control. But why put people in harms way when a robot could do the job? The U.S. military thinks we shouldn't have to. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research and Planning Agency (Darpa) announced a competition today to build robots that could cut down on all that heroism.

The robots would be expected to manage a disaster site, and do everything from brute tasks like breaking down a wall, to more delicate missions like replacing parts of a failing machine. Of course, by themselves those things are already easily achievable by robots. The challenge is to build one that can do them all.

But if you're imagining a C3PO type humanoid robot, robotics experts say: think again. The most successful robots probably won't look much like you or I. “Analogs to animals such as spiders, monkeys, bears, kangaroos and goats are useful inspiration when considering parts of the challenge,” Aaron Edsinger, founder of Meka Robotics told the New York Times.

Today, Darpa released more information about the contest (PDF version here).

The primary goal of the DARPA Robotics Challenge program is to develop ground robotic capabilities to execute complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments. The program will focus on robots that can utilize available human tools, ranging from hand tools to vehicles.

They also released a list of tasks that the robot will probably have to complete:

1.    Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2.    Travel dismounted across rubble.
3.    Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4.    Open a door and enter a building.
5.    Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6.    Use a tool to break through a concrete panel (see Figure 1).
7.    Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe (see Figure 1).
8.    Replace a component such as a cooling pump.

This isn't the first time Darpa has offered a prize for engineering. It's "grand challenges" can net winners millions of dollars. The amount awarded to the winners of this prize hasn't been announced yet, but the competition will probably start in 2013.

In hind site, Japan wished they had robots to deal with the Fukushima disaster. The country is full of robotics designs, from the famous Asimo to the creepy talking hand rings, but none designed to carry out rescue and disaster management tasks. But they, and the United States, hope that future disasters are safe in robot hands.

Via: The New York Times, Wired, Hizook

Photo: US Military

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure